Purposes and Purpose: Ecclesiastes and Babel

There may well be “a time to every purpose under the heaven,” as we read during the fall holidays, but the new Torah cycle quickly returns us to a time when the whole earth was “of one language and of common purpose” (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] 3:1; Gen 11:1). A previous post briefly discussed the word “purpose” in the Kohelet passage and the subsequent use of merisms, like weeping/laughing and wailing/dancing to suggest a whole range of human experiences. Here, we explore more ideas about purpose, from the Tower (and City) of Babel story.

The word “cheifetz” in the expression “l’chol cheifetz [לְכׇל־חֵ֖פֶץ] is translated as “purpose” in the King James Version (and Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn”): “every purpose under heaven.” Other translations use “thing” (ArtScroll), “matter” (Robert Alter), and “experience” (new JPS). Jastrow’s Dictionary tells us the noun cheifetz can be a 1) thing or 2) concern, business; desire; desirable object. The verb chet-pei-tzadei means 1) to bend, to be busy with, to be anxious, desire; 2) to hold in one’s hand.” (See also Every Purpose…”) The Hebrew sometimes translated as “purpose” in Gen 11:1 is an entirely different word. On the other — more poetic hand — the Hebrew verb used for “scattering” in the Babel story carries echoes of Kohelet’s purpose.

Language of Kohelet and Babel

The Hebrew translated as “purpose” in Gen 11:1 differs from the purpose [cheifetz] in Kohelet. The expression, “u’d’varim achadim [וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים],” is sometimes rendered as “one speech” (KJV), “common speech” (New Int’l Version), “same words” (new JPS), and “one set of words” (Alter). A dvar can be a word or a thing, an utterance, a matter or a business or occupation. Echad can be one, singular, unique, or unified. The use of “common purpose” (Artscroll) incorporates prominent commentary into the translation (a bit on ancient and medieval commentaries on this verse).

In her chapter on Babel, “Rebirth of the Individual,” Judy Klitsner discusses possible meanings of being of “one idea” and comes to this conclusion:

In order to fulfill God’s intentions for humanity, each godlike person must develop as a unique individual, even if individuality will occasionally lead the human being away from God. An individual, even a rebellious one, is more godly than a mindless member of a human herd.

Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other. Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2011, p.45

She also discusses the importance of repeated words, especially prominent in the space of this terse tale. One of those words is pei-vav-tzadei [פּוּץ] “to scatter,” used three times in the 9-verse story:

  • pen-nafutz [פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ]– “‘…lest we be scattered…'” (Gen 11:4)
  • va-yafetz [וַיָּ֨פֶץ], — “God scattered…” (Gen 11:8)
  • hefitzam [הֱפִיצָ֣ם] — “[from there God] scattered them” (Gen 11:9)

I cannot find any direct linguistic connection between the roots chet-pei-tzadei and pei-vav-tzadei. But I hear echoes of Kohelet’s “every purpose under heaven” in the Babel’s story movement from a single, common purpose (word, idea) to a splitting up that allows each person to develop uniquely, pursuing their own individual purpose.

Variety is Divine

In my youth, someone who behaved badly toward others was told, “God don’t like ugly.” How many of us were taught that “ugly” includes trying to force others to behave as a “mindless member of a human herd,” to be like us, or to be, in any way, other than themselves?

Rabbi Gerry Serotta, who has spent decades in interfaith and other boundary-crossing work, teaches that it is good practice to look for the variety of people and perspectives in biblical narrative because “variety is God’s plan.” He sites the Babel story as one indication of this divine preference. At times, the Torah narrative can seem very focused on “dividing” — day from night, this lineage from that, people who accept a covenant and those who don’t… — but the divisions can also be read as developing inclusion and diversity, in place of one undifferentiated blob of sameness or “human herd.”


Commentaries

The commentary of Rashi (11th Century, France) on the Bible and Talmud is so prominent in Jewish tradition as to appear with its own script right next to the original text in many printed versions. He says about Genesis 11:1 that the people were “of one plan”:

They came with one plan, saying: “[God] has no right to select the heavenly regions exclusively for Himself; let us ascend to the skies and make war upon Him”.

— Rashi for Gen 11:1 via Sefaria.org

Some Torah translations, like ArtScroll (Stone Edition, 1993), incorporate Rashi’s perspectives into their word choices. In this case, the English is not related to dvar — “one speech,” e.g., or “one thing” — but instead an interpretation that picks up on Rashi’s idea of purpose or plan.

The idea that the people of Babel were intent on warring with God is much older than Rashi. His commentary often includes ideas from earlier works that he incorporated into his line-by-line analysis. One place we find the people of Babel warring with God is in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin (written around 450-550 CE): The Mishnah (completed earlier, by 250 CE) says that “the generation of the Dispersion” from Babel have no place in the world-to-come, but no sin that could have resulted in such a circumstance is specified. The Torah itself does not use sin language in the Babel story or speak of God’s actions as punishment. So rabbis in Babylon a few hundred years later ponder the Mishnah’s declaration, suggesting a few sins, including waging war against God (B. Sanhedrin 109a).

It is worth emphasizing that the Sanhedrin passage includes other possible sins: the related idea of “idol worship” is taken up by many later teachers, as is the idea that the people were disobeying God’s previous command to spread out over the earth in their decision to “dwell” at Babel. So the one plan to war on God was not universal even in the Talmud. Many other teachers over the centuries suggested interpretations of this terse tale and what sin, if any, the people committed.

All translation is an interpretation, of course. But using language like “common purpose” for Gen 11:1 can narrow our understandings of a passage (something like prejudicing a trial). On the other hand, variety in translation can be helpful, too…. as long as we don’t rely on just one.

RETURN

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